Abuse prevention effort adapts over 30 years to keep kids safe

Angela+McManis+is+community+services+director+at+Jewish+Family+Services.+Photo%3A+Bill+Motchan

Angela McManis is community services director at Jewish Family Services. Photo: Bill Motchan

BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

For 30 years, Jewish Family Services (JFS) has visited St. Louis area schools delivering its Child Abuse Prevention Program (CAPP). The initiative has never been more important. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the United States, at least one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year.

JFS has a full schedule, presenting age-appropriate child abuse prevention presentations for each grade level at 150 schools. Earlier this month, a St. Louis County school provided feedback that indicated just how significant the training is, said Angela McManis, JFS community services director.

The program received an email from a school counselor who heard from a parent that their second-grade student had a situation at a drop-off event — a place where parents can bring their kids for two or three hours of activities and playtime while they run errands.

“There were a bunch of employees there who were watching and making sure everything was OK,” McManis said. “But another child pulled this child away from the group. He tried to get her to do some inappropriate things. And she immediately said, ‘No,’ and went to get help, just like she learned in the JFS class in school.”

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Fortunately, the child emerged from the situation unharmed. The child’s mother told the counselor that she tried to do the same preparation at home. As a parent, she liked to think that all other kids were as sweet and innocent as hers. The real world showed her otherwise.

“I’m glad that the school introduced this topic and reinforced it so that she made the right choice, got help from an adult,” she said. “In the end, it’s a positive opportunity to tell her we’re proud of her for taking action and reinforcing that she has bodily autonomy, and she can set boundaries and she’s the boss of her body.”

For McManis and the four JFS staff members who visit schools, the email was validation about the messages they deliver.

“It was one of those situations that gives you goosebumps,” McManis said. “I immediately forwarded it to the staff. It’s really energizing because they do this day in and day out. And while there are some things embedded in the presentations to check for understanding, we can’t test to see if they’ll use it.”

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and a number of state and national efforts are in place to address the problem. Recent statistics show a decrease in child abuse cases. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 62,059 child maltreatment investigations in Missouri in 2020, down almost 18% from 2016.

A similar drop has been reported across the United States, particularly during the pandemic. Some experts believe instances of child abuse are underreported because many schools did not conduct classes in-person during 2020 and 2021. Online classrooms make it more challenging for teachers to identify kids who may have been abused. Most schools have returned to in-person classrooms, so there is more opportunity to stress awareness about child abuse. One of the keys to prevention is making sure kids understand the warning signs and know what to do.

“The research says this is something that they need to learn every year, they need to have reinforced every year throughout childhood, like stop, drop and roll,” McManis said. “You don’t just want it once in kindergarten and never talk about it again. If it’s reinforced throughout the years of childhood, they’re more likely to use it, or at least if they’re not going to say no and get away because of all the reasons that they might not, they’ll at least tell an adult.”

Some of the reasons a child may not be able to get out of a dangerous situation immediately is if the predator is powerful enough to hold the child against his or her will.

Another message in the JFS program is to never blame the victim.

“It’s very important for kids to know that while they can say no,  and we encourage them to, if they forget, it’s OK,” McManis said. “It’s not their fault if they were too scared or if they were manipulated and they didn’t say no, or they didn’t get away.”

The information JFS provides to kids is simple and straightforward. Training materials in pre-K through first grade include a coloring book guide to safe touching. For example, it illustrates that giving a high-five or a handshake are examples of OK touching. However, it’s not OK for anyone else to look at or touch the private parts of their bodies. Similarly, it’s not OK for them to look at or touch the private parts of someone else’s body. The exception to both rules is that it can be appropriate if it’s to keep a child clean or healthy.

In the three decades JFS has provided the service, it has evolved as technology presents new challenges for parents.

“In the late ’90s, we added an internet safety component,” McManis said. “That piece has to adapt every year. Things look totally different from 10 years ago. Now we talk about social media, video gaming and what kind of information you should share on the internet — what to do if somebody’s bothering you on social media or in video games, because kids do a lot of video games where they’re chatting by typing or through headsets and they can talk to other people. Some parents allow it, and some parents don’t. We just need them to be prepared.”

CAPP is a part of JFS services and is funded in part by the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, the Tilles Foundation and the Dana Brown Charitable Trust. The program is an essential educational experience for kids, said Shannon Rohlman, director of instruction at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

“We have them every year. We are grateful that JFS provides this service to the community. Every child deserves a safe environment, and this program provides the language and skills to empower our students to protect themselves from potentially dangerous situations and help students who have seen or experienced abuse [understand] the importance of reporting the incident to a trusted adult,” Rohlman said.

“I am a parent of a fifth-grader and, as a parent, I am grateful for JFS and their experienced teachers because it provides an opportunity for our family to reinforce this message and build upon the conversation at home, Rohlman said.”

The JFS website offers additional resources to aid parents and reinforce the message of child abuse prevention, including short videos with tips on how to talk to your child about sexual abuse.